I have lived in Northern California for most of my life, but I often forget about Central California. My perception of the state consisted of Northern California and Southern California. The central part of the state, most notable for Fresno, CA was simply a region I thought of one might drive through on their way to Northern or Southern.
As I stood in the Save Mart Center, located on the campus of Fresno State, the floor of the arena filled with dinner tables decorated with boxing glove key chains, dinner menus and enlarged faces printed on cardboard, all I could of think of was why? Why has it taken so long for this region been so anonymous for so long to me? When the night was over, 13,000 fight fans had filled the arena to watch Jose Ramirez fight on Saturday December 5th. The exact number varied depending upon who you ask, but the venue was definitely sold out, and a number people were turned away at the door. Not bad for a card that was only broadcast on Spanish language television.
Ramirez has developed a synergy with the fans of Fresno. Central California is an agricultural capital, full of Mexican and Mexican-American farm laborers. They feel connected to Ramirez (born and raised in nearby Avenal) because he represented the area in the 2012 Olympics. This is an area that desperately needs its bright spots. Jobs there have been devastated by the relentless drought of 2015. The first thing that comes up when you google Avenal is a state prison. People there dream of getting out, but few ever do.
Ramirez is just like his fans. He came up through similar circumstances, attending similarly under-resourced schools, experiencing a lack of opportunities and many hardships. But he’s a kid from Avenal who has a chance to be world famous.
Since turning pro, Ramirez has been mainly fighting in and around Fresno. Rightfully so since he draws a large crowd. It hasn’t been all honeymoon for the young star signed to Top Rank Promotions though. Some questioned his loyalty to his hometown when he flaunted designer clothing on social media platforms. Now, we all understand what it is like to be young, told that we have everything at our fingertips if we work hard. We still try to do things we deem “cool.” Sometimes we pay for our youthful naivete. Ramirez hasn’t had to pay yet. There is something beautiful about this 23-year-old man who is not yet jaded and living his life truly blissfully.
The great California drought is terrible right now. Homeowners are fined for going over their daily ration of water. It is a tremendous burden, top of mind for everyone who lives there. It’s in this atmosphere that Top Rank staged the “Fight for the Water V,” the fifth installment of a boxing series in Fresno headlined by Ramirez that gives back to those whose lives are effected by the drought. Ramirez is a star in Fresno, because everyone in Fresno and neighboring areas know someone who knows him. He is readily accessible to his hometown fans and frequently out in the public eye.
It felt not unlike watching someone’s collection of home movies. Walking around the arena, I heard different stories about what Ramirez meant to those in attendance. I heard from the man who installed a television system in Ramirez’s house and swears that Ramirez owes him signed gloves. Another guy who told me Ramirez was his best friend’s cousin. The story is simple: Ramirez is the everyman here. He is not an outsider. His manager Rick Mirigian scheduled weeks upon weeks of events for Ramirez to do prior to the bout. He is present and tangible.
It felt pure, it felt honest, and it felt rare to see people coming together just to hope for one person to do well. Ramirez is lightning in a bottle for Fresno, and they have captured it. He will be very hard to replace if he ever permanently leaves.
On this night, Ramirez was returning to the ring against a lesser known foe, Johnny Garcia. The talented Ramirez puzzled me, though. He has a lot of pure boxing skill, but instead elected to simply charge forward and trade punches with Garcia from the first bell. The only way Garcia could win is if Ramirez gave him a chance, which Ramirez did. Then I thought back upon the concept of “Mexican-style” boxing, (a term coined by a Caucasian shoe salesman visiting Mexico) which is an aggressive, action-fighting style. Ramirez isn’t fighting for the pundits or purists like me. Ramirez is fighting for his city, his town and his people, so for him, creating an action fight is more important.
When Ramirez hit the deck in the second round, I felt conflicted and confused. It shouldn’t have happened, but it is hard to get mad at someone trying to entertain 13,000 of his closest fans. Often, we as media we talk about how fighters need to be more entertaining. But if they don’t fight perfectly (like Tim Bradley did against Brandon Rios) we often criticize them for not fighting smart. Ramirez may have fallen, but he did what many of his fans have to do after setbacks like the recession or the drought: he got back up. Not only did he get up, he got up better than ever.
Though it was far from the defining performance of Ramirez’s career, he earned the victory, winning virtually every round after being dropped. Even more though, he let it known that he will never be beaten if he has anything left in the tank. Deeper than the fight itself, that to me seems to be why Ramirez connects so much with Central California: he fights in a forgotten style in a forgotten region for fans who feel forgotten. But Ramirez has not forgotten them.